James Duthie shares some of hockey's greatest untold stories in 'Beauties'

·6 min read

James Duthie faced a big problem.

After conducting dozens of interviews for a compilation of hockey stories — most of them previously known to only a select few — the award-winning broadcaster was stuck.

The book needed a name.

"I had a lot of sleepless nights because I just didn't have a title," Duthie recalled. 

Then, one day, it all made sense.

"When I was transcribing the interviews, I just kept hearing (beauty) over and over," he pauses briefly for dramatic effect, "and over again.

"Eventually I said, 'I have to call it this.'"

The end product is "Beauties: Hockey's Greatest Untold Stories," a collection of tales from superstars, Hall of Famers, coaches, agents, executives, fellow television personalities, parents, minor leaguers and inspirational, everyday people.

The premise came to Duthie, the host of TSN's hockey coverage, after hearing story upon story from the rotating cast of characters on the network's panels through the years.

"I wanted to do a true hockey book," he said. "Probably my favourite part of the gig is just sitting around watching the games with these guys. They usually tell their best stories when we're not on TV — those are when the good stories come out. 

"In the back of my mind I always thought, 'Man, if I could put all these stories in a book...'"

But he didn't want just any anecdote. Duthie needed their finest.

"Sometimes if you read a biography you get a few good stories," he said in a recent interview. "You have to go through the whole life story, which is great, but I thought, 'What if you could do just great stories?' I asked about 60 people, 'Tell me your favourite hockey story.' That's what everybody wants to hear, I think, when they get time with someone like this.

"No rules. Just tell me your best story. That's what the book is."

And it's full of them.

There's the one about Sidney Crosby's roommate in junior needing the phenom's signature to get out of a jam, Bobby Orr seeing Connor McDavid for the first time, the night Auston Matthews made his stunning four-goal debut, and a locker-room mishap early in Hayley Wickenheiser's career. 

There are stories involving lesser-known figures like Scott Foster — the true beer leaguer who was pressed into NHL service as an emergency backup goalie before David Ayres became hockey's most famous Zamboni driver — an AHL netminder getting carjacked hours before a game, and a journeyman's seven-year run through the lowest rungs of the minors.

"The names that aren't as familiar are probably my favourite stories in the book," Duthie said.

Many chapters are peppered with humour. And some aren't.

There's one with Laila Anderson, the young St. Louis superfan who battled a rare immune disease and inspired the team and city during the Blues' march to the Stanley Cup. 

Another touches on Jonathan Pitre, who was from Duthie's hometown of Ottawa and died two years ago at 17 after battling an agonizing skin disease his entire life. All he ever wanted to do was play the sport he loved, but couldn't.

And then there's the 30th Bronco — Humboldt Broncos assistant coach Chris Beaudry, who wasn't on the bus for the horrific April 2018 crash that killed 16 members of his team and injured 13 more.

"When I pick up a book, I want to go through the range of emotions, if I can," Duthie said. "Most of the stories are pretty light, and that's kind of how I am, but I didn't just want that.

"I wanted there to be some serious stories ... some that might tug at your heartstrings."

Before setting out to write his fourth book, Duthie worried players — especially current NHLers — wouldn't open up. He came away pleasantly surprised.

"Sid is such a quiet guy who keeps to himself," Duthie said. "He would send me voice memos, which was the coolest thing."

"One of the big reasons I did this was to prove players aren't boring," the 54-year-old added. "They can be, particularly in the intermissions where we ask dumb questions and they say, 'We've got to get pucks deep.' But if you get them out of that environment, hockey players have better stories than almost every other athlete. 

"There's something about the nature of the game and bonding between teammates that is ripe for great storytelling."

So here's the big question: what's the definition of a 'beauty'?

"In hockey terms, a beauty is a real character," Duthie explained. "But it can mean a bunch of different things. A beauty can just be a really fascinating person. Laila Anderson, she's a beauty. The courage, the toughness of being a hockey player, that's part of being a beauty. If someone does something spectacular on the ice, that's part of being a beauty. 

"It's all those things."

Following the stress of the interviews and landing on a title, the next step was putting the chapters in order. There are 47 in all, so Duthie put the name of each on a small piece of paper and spread them across his kitchen table.

The only thing he knew was the book would start with Crosby and end with a young Syrian refugee new to Canada desperate to learn the country's favourite sport.

"I sat there for a night just mixing (the papers) back and forth," Duthie said. "It was just this dance, and I still don't know if there was a better order."

He readily admits to first getting into broadcasting because it seemed like less work when he was enrolled in Carleton University's journalism program — Duthie realized long ago that's not the case — but despite his television fame, he marvels at the permanence of printed words.

"What we do in TV or radio is just so fleeting," Duthie said. "It's not like 30 years from now I'm going to say, 'Do you remember that panel we did about the Maple Leafs' power play in the first intermission? That was awesome.' You do something and it's just gone. I love the fact that you write something and it's there kind of forever.

"It's hokey — you're grandkids might read it or something like that — but I think that matters."

Duthie, who wanted to touch on hockey stories across the board, concedes at the end of his book the game has its fair share of imperfections. But there's lots of good people with great stories, too.

"I wanted readers to laugh for a couple of chapters and then maybe get something to think about a little bit," he said. "That's always a bit of a risk because it could throw them for a loop, but that's what I want. 

"I want you to be surprised."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2020.

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"Beauties: Hockey's Greatest Untold Stories." James Duthie. HarperCollins, 301 pages, $34.99.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press